Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
A Treatise on the Social Contract: Or, The Principles of Politic Law, commonly known as The Social Contract, is a product of Rousseau’s retreat from Paris. This examination of government appeared in 1762, the same year as Émile, his treatise on education. In The Confessions, Rousseau emphasizes the awkwardness that he felt in society. He was a deeply solitary man who found social life distracting and distasteful. Yet when he reflected on society, Rousseau created a work that provided posterity with the vocabulary, with the terms and assumptions that would be employed, consciously or unconsciously, to address social issues for the next two centuries and beyond.
“Man is born free, and yet we see him everywhere in chains.” Thus Rousseau opens his treatise on human government, establishing his unique point of view. He continues: “Those who believe themselves the masters of others cease not to be even greater slaves than the people they govern.” Rousseau is himself a master at noting the contradictions underlying all generally accepted values. Perhaps that is one explanation for the enormous influence of the work.
The Social Contract is a major source, for example, of the doctrine of popular sovereignty. Almost all modern states claim to be “people’s states.” Public deliberation, mass demonstrations, voting, plebiscites, all rituals for arousing a popular will are as necessary to...
(The entire section is 821 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
The Social Contract stands as one of the great classics of political philosophy. In three earlier works, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s basic theme had gradually emerged. Rousseau attacked the basic principles of Enlightenment thought, a philosophy that was dominant in eighteenth century Europe. Enlightenment thinkers sought to free philosophy and religion from the superstitions of the past. They supported the use of reason and science as the foundation for all belief and conduct. In contrast, Rousseau maintained that human understanding is not the sole domain of reason, but is, as he stated, “greatly indebted to passions.” Therefore, to understand one’s relationship to society, it is necessary to return to a state of nature to search for a better political order.
Political philosophers before Rousseau, most notably the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), believed that before people formed society, life was a perpetual state of war—“every man against every man.” The only way for people to live together in peace, then, was to form a social contract in which the citizens establish a mutually agreed-upon form of social organization.
Rousseau’s thinking about the social contract was the exact opposite of what was commonly accepted at the time. He argued that people are not evil and selfish in the state of nature as Hobbes claimed. In Rousseau’s view, society breeds inequality and selfishness because society involves...
(The entire section is 1815 words.)